What is in an apology?

The two year anniversary of Harper’s apology to victims of the residential schools is just a few weeks away, what I would like to know is, has anything changed? The first residential schools were started in the 1840s with the last one closing in 1996. If you’ve ever heard of the schools it’s quite possible that you have never heard about what really happened. Unfortunately the stories of abuse lay dormant for decades, The Story of a National Crime: Being a Record of the Health Conditions of the Indians of Canada from 1904 to 1921 by Dr Peter Bryce which talked about the mortality rates within the schools between 1894 to 1908 only became public in 1922.

Bryce’s report contended that the high mortality rates were were deliberate in many cases with healthy children being placed with those who had tuberculosis. Over a five year period the schools had a 35 to 60% death rate because of tuberculosis which was rampant. In Harper’s apology he mentions how some died but according to hiddenfromhistory.org an estimated 50,000 children died in the schools. The school’s were run by the Catholic, Anglican and United church’s, Pope Benedict XVI is the only church leader to express regret for what happened in the schools.

His Holiness recalled that since the earliest days of her presence in Canada, the Church, particularly through her missionary personnel, has closely accompanied the indigenous peoples. Given the sufferings that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian Residential School system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity. His Holiness emphasized that acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society. He prayed that all those affected would experience healing, and he encouraged First Nations Peoples to continue to move forward with renewed hope.

The alleged abuses varied from Rape and torture, medical sterilization and experimentation, Physical abuse and even murder. I once had a conversation with one survivor where we talked about what really went on in the schools.(For the sake of this blog we’ll call him George) George went into a school in southern Ontario at the age of 5, he was beaten for speaking his language, he had his hair cut and had to deal with various abuses from the nuns and priests. The schools not only tried to beat the Indian out of the child but it also irreparably damaged and displaced families and when I mean displaced, George doesn’t know where family members who went into the schools are anymore.

I had such high hopes for the apology when I heard that it was coming but afterwords I felt nothing but disappointment. Sure the apology was a necessary first step but it didn’t go far enough,it sure wasn’t long enough at just under 10min. When Kevin Rudd the Prime minister of Australia apologized to the Aborigines for the stolen generations he spoke for 30min in detail about the survivors of the stolen generations went through and promised to make amends for what happened. Harper simply apologized and left at that, he even mentioned that it took a year of Jack Layton leader of the NDP telling him to apologize and that it was important. If it takes someone that long to decide if it’s okay to apologize then how could anyone take it seriously.

I was interviewed by the CBC about my reaction to the apology, unfortunately my response was severely edited. I wasn’t surprised by the edit because I don’t think people are ready to hear about what really happened during that time. What I think needs to be done is the whole truth needs to come out, everything, all the dirty laundry. The Friends and Relatives of the Disappeared (FRD) sent a letter to the United Church which asked that the church identify the burial sites of residential school children who died under their care, and return them for a proper burial, the letter was ignored. There have been many demonstrations since the letter was sent out in February.

Only with full disclosure can the country and it’s victims can truly start to heal, a person can’t heal if they are prevented from sharing the full story. Unfortunately because there was so many years of neglect, so many years of ignoring the issue the victims have grown to include their families. One quote that best describes the situation most survivors are in is “We have forgotten how to love”. Imagine hurting so much inside that it affects your ability to interact with even your own family let alone people. That is what victims had to face, unable to talk, to share their pain, they kept it bottled up inside where it festered. Some victims turned to drugs and alcohol, some turned to suicide.

I myself am a victim of sexual abuse and was not able to share what had happened because my abuser told that my mother wouldn’t believe me and that it would cause only problems. It would be two decades before I would really speak about it. When it comes to solutions I don’t believe that a simple apology will do it nor will an inquiry. The survivors need justice, yes some of the accused are long dead but there are some that are still around and should be brought to justice. We can’t just brush this aside aside because it happened so long ago, in order for this issue to completely heal we need to do it properly!

Irkar Beljaars